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Born free

  • 28 July 2020
I’m a Twitter tragic, even though the Puritan in my soul deplores the frequency of bad language, and the pedant is struck by the number of mistakes in spelling and usage. But every so often I am brought up short by more serious matters. The tweet I have just read in the heat of the Greek afternoon was written by a man near wintry Melbourne who feels threatened by governmental instructions to wear face masks. He targets Premier Daniel Andrews, and declares he will neither wear a mask, nor pay a fine. He will not comply or ‘bow down’ to Dictator Dan. He was, he says ‘born free.’

During times of crisis concepts such as power and liberty are often brought into the light and re-examined, and it is a sad fact that during those same times, people in power often try to chip away at liberty, at democracy’s most basic freedoms: several current world leaders immediately spring to mind. The man who was ‘born free’ might ask himself exactly why Australia’s Parliament has been shut down. Again.

Lockdown has given us all a good chance to reflect and revaluate, perhaps even to think about what we have learned during decades, and as a result of life’s experience. Many of us have read and re-read a great deal, while still others have revisited influential people of the past. One person with whom I have renewed a slight acquaintance is the fascinating and complex Lord Acton (1834-1902), historian, writer, politician and formidable linguist.

On one level Acton was a pillar of the English establishment, a member of the British aristocracy, and a close friend and adviser of Gladstone. On another he had a very cosmopolitan background: born in Naples to a mother of ancient French-German lineage, he married a Bavarian aristocrat and eventually, because of the convolutions of his European connections, became an Italian Marquis. He was also raised a Catholic at a time when Catholic emancipation had only recently taken place, and was denied entrance to the University of Cambridge because of lingering prejudice. But in a much later and satisfying irony, Cambridge appointed him Regius Professor of Modern History.

Acton was a deeply learned man who influenced many people, and still does; he is perhaps best known for his view, expressed in a letter to the Anglican Bishop of London, that ‘Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Once again, certain world